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Menok and Geteh

The pahlavi words for 'spiritual' and 'material' are, in this context, menok and geteh, and they derive from the Avestan words mainyu and gaethya. Mainyu derives from the same root as Latin mens and our own mind: it is what thinks, chooses, and wills-what distinguishes the purely spiritual gods as well as man from all the rest of creation. Gaethya derives from a root gay-, jay-, meaning 'to live'; it means anything that is possessed of physical life, and since all material things were regarded by the Zoroastrians of the 'catholic' period as being in some sense alive, gaethya came to mean 'material'. The two words, then, corresponded exactly to what is called 'spiritual' and 'material' in other Near Eastern religions.

With the introduction of Aristotelian terminology, however, these simple religious concepts became confused. 'Matter', for Aristotle, was of itself so nebulous a concept that it could hardly be said to exist at all until it received 'form'. Thus the classic pair of opposites is, for him, not matter and spirit, but matter and form. It is true that the Iranians found suitable words other than menok and geteh to express these ideas, but they re-deifined menok and geteh in accordance with Aristotelian principles. Because the menok or spiritual side of man which included mind, will, and consciousness, was regarded as being immaterial, the word was re-defined as meaning a single, uncompounded substance without parts, invisible and intangible; and because Aristotle's 'matter' was also invisible and intangible, 'matter' in its primary unformed state was also described as menok. Thus there are three forms of menok existence, the two menoks or 'spirit' of orthodox theology, neither of which is the material cause of the material and physical world, and a third menok, which is the totally unformed primal matter of Aristotelian philosophy, the unseen source of all material things. The Armenian historian, Eznik of Kolb, noticed this discrepancy and pointed out that the Zoroastrians were divided into sects, and that among them there were some who admitted two principles only while others accepted three. In fact, even the fully orthodox account of the creation admits the existence of a third entity between Ohrmazd who dwells on high in the light and Ahriman who prowls below in the darkness: this entity is the Void, otherwise called Vay; and 'Vay' is simply the Pahlavi form of the ancient god Vayu used now to mean the 'atmosphere' that separates the heavenly lights above from the infernal darkness below. To this mythological account of the creation we shall have to return once we have considered the various philosophical interpretations of creation preserved in the Denkart. Some of these come perilously near to the position of the Zandiks or materialist Zurvanites.

Creative Evolution

Menok, we learn, used in the quite new sense of invisible and intangible primal matter, is uncompounded, and devoid of parts; it is called ras, the 'wheel'. The 'wheel' seems rather an odd name to apply to what Aristotle would have called 'primal matter' and calls for some explanation. It is, however, the word used elsewhere for the 'wheel' of heaven, the heavenly sphere in which the whole material creation is contained. This 'heavenly sphere' or firmament is thought of as comprising the whole material creation; it is the macrocosm in the image of which man, the microcosm, is made; it is the universe as it is when fully formed, the 'world' or geteh.

Matter, however, can neither be created nor destroyed; hence, primal matter, which is one, devoid of parts, and lacking all form, is also called ras, the 'wheel'. Itself eternal, it is the source of all becoming. It is infinite Time-Space, the Zurvan Akarana mentioned in the Avesta. Space is the pre-condition of matter, and Time is its eternity, and without infinite Time-Space there could have been no creation. The word 'creation', of course, implies a creator and in most of the cosmological passages in the Denkart Ohrmazd appear as the creator who fashions forth his creation from primal matter; he gives form to the formless Time-Space continuum. There are, however, two passages in which no reference at all is made to a creator; the whole process of creation is represented as an authomatic process of 'becoming' from a unitary, infinite and eternal Time-Space. Time-Space is the primal 'matter' from which all 'becoming' proceeds. 'Becoming' is perhaps not the best translation of the word bavishn which seems to stand for a state of indeterminate being from which the whole evolutionary process starts, for it is also called the 'seed' and the 'seed of seeds'. Even so it is posterior to Time-Space and originates from it. The whole process of evolution from primal matter (Time-Space) to the fully developed universe is seen as taking place in four stages. These are called 'becoming', the 'process of becoming', the 'stabilization of becoming', and finally the 'world', geteh. This scheme of things, which makes no mention of a creator God is, of course, wholly un-Zoroastrian; it is a purely materialistic and mechanistic interpretation of the universe, yet it lays claim to scriptural authority, for it uses phrase 'as is said in the Religion'. This 'Religion' is obviously not the Avesta as we know it; it can only refer to the Graeco-Indian writings imported into the Sassanian Avestan by Shapur.

This fourfold scheme of evolution, however, whatever its source, is repeated again and again in the Denkart, and efforts are made to fit it into a strictly dualist framework. The three stages that precede the emergence of the fully differentiated cosmos-becoming, the process of becoming, and the stabilization of becoming-are elsewhere equated respectively with two of the four 'natural properties', the hot and the moist; with the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth); and with organic life as manifested in animals and men. Again, 'becoming', that is, the hot and the moist, is called 'primal matter', 'unformed and the origin of all material forms'; the 'process of becoming', that is, the four elements, is 'mediary matter' or 'potential form', while the 'stabilization of becoming', defined as 'form detached from matter', is 'ultimate matter'.

To make confusion worse confounded the 'process of becoming' is also called the 'first form' and the 'stabilization of becoming' the 'second form', while living creatures are termed the 'third form'. 'Matter' and 'form' are, of course, basic to Aristotle's philosophy, but in the Denkart the author rarely seems to understand what the terms mean and uses them in an exceedingly arbitary way. The terminology is Aristotelian, but the evolutionary cosmogony we meet with seems to be peculiar to the Denkart. In substance it would seem to be nearer to Indian thought and particularly to the Maitri Upanishad, which also distinguishes three stages in the evolutionary process, than it is to Aristotle.

The two passages from the Denkart from which we have drawn these curious evolutionary ideas are thus almost indistinguishable from the mechanistic materialism of the Zandiks, for they are concerned exclusively with the development of the material world, and say nothing at all about spirit. Only in the last sentence of each is any reference made to good and evil. 'From the world (geteh),' we read, '[proceed] specific things and persons together with their respective operations, or, as the Religion says: "From the world proceeded that which grew together within both the two Spirits -righteousness and unrighteousness-"'. This, presumably, is a concession to traditional orthodoxy, but it is a strange one; for, though it mentions the 'two Spirits', that is, Ohrmazd and Ahriman (though not a word was said of them in what went before), it implies that good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, too, proceed naturally from the now fully differentiated and individuated material 'world'. We are moving in a circle of ideas in which Ohrmazd and Ahriman find no natural place.

The Dualist Interpretation of Evolution

Now, in Greek physics the four primary properties are the hot, the cold, the moist, and the dry; yet the stage called 'becoming' in our texts is equated with the hot and the moist only. Why, one wonders, should this be? The reason can only be that, in the Iranian tradition, Ohrmazd was identified with the hot and the moist, Ahriman with the cold and the dry, for 'the substance of Ohrmazd is hot and moist, bright, sweet-smelling, and light', while that of Ahriman is 'cold and dry, heavy, dark, and stinking'. So, when orthodoxy attempted to adapt the purely physical account of the evolution of the universe which they imported from Byzantium or India to their own way of thinking, they excised the cold and the dry from the group of the natural properties because they were considered to constitute the substance of Ahriman -and the material world is created by Ohrmazd, not by Ahriman. Further, of the four elements it is the air which is hot and moist according to Aristotle, and the air or wind is identical with the ancient god Vayu who, in the orthodox cosmology, has become the Void which separates the kingdom of light from the kingdom of darkness; and this Void is the raw material from which Ohrmazd forms the material universe.

The Denkart is by no means a consistent whole; least of all is it so in its description of the origins of the universe. Because this is so, we are able to register the modifications that a purely mechanistic and atheistic doctrine which was incongruously grafted on to the Avesta, underwent at the hands of the orthodox. The fourfold evolutionary scheme is accepted, but it is no longer an authomatic process. It is controlled and directed by Ohrmazd. The re-definition of menok as meaning not only the traditional 'spirit', intellect, and will', but also all that is beyond the physical senses, that is, primal matter as understood by Aristotle, is accepted; but the world no longer proceeds automatically from this primal matter which is the Time-Space continuum, but is formed by Ohrmazd in the same way that a diadem is fashioned out of gold by a goldsmith, or a spade out of iron by an iron-founder. Ras, that is, primal matter and the embodiment of Time-Space, now appears as the 'implement' which Ohrmazd wields against his eternal enemy. The material world was drawn forth from the unseen 'to strive against the author of disorderly movement (oshtapak), that is, to repel the Adversary of creation; and this has as its corollary an eternal increase in well-being. This is what it was created for.... No action undertaken by any material creature exists which is not aimed at the repulse of the author of disorderly movement. Creation, then, is God's reasoned reaction against the attack he foresees must come from the opposing side. The evolutionary process is now no longer a purely automatic process of development inherent in the very nature of matter. The 'seed' or first origin of the material world is now not from the ras or Time-Space continuum: it results 'from the creative activity of the Creator through the instrumentality of the power of Time-Space'. Time-Space is thus the instrument which God uses to bring his enemy into the open. What is more, eternal Time-Space is now identified not simply with primal matter but with the Endless Light which is Ohrmazd's eternal habitat; and creation, in its various stages, is thus seen as an ever-diminishing reflection of the divine light.

A Zurvanite View of Evolution

Similar ideas are developed on more strictly dualist lines in another passage in the Denkart. Here the menok or invisible world in general is described as being single and uncompounded; but within this unity, it appears, the basic polarity of light and darkness is latently present, and this polarity also includes the polarity of life and death. Through God's creative activity, creation emerges from its pristine unity into a multiplicity of compound beings, 'visible and tangible', and these again will return to their source. The original unity, however, becomes differentiated into the four natural properties of hot, moist, cold, and dry-the hot and the moist being the principle of life, and the cold and the dry being the principle of death; and it is the mere fact that the hot and the moist are naturally alive that enables them to develop in material form. The cold and the dry are sterile by nature and cannot develop any living organism. What appear to be physical manifestations of evil and were traditionally so in earlier Zoroastrianism -wolves, serpents, and heretics, for example -are rather physical manifestations of the original light possessed by an evil spirit: they are the garments put on by the demons. Now, this would appear to be almost exactly the theory of creation which Eudemus of Rhodes attributed to the Magi; for, according to him, the Magi called the whole intelligible universe (which is a unity) Space or Time, and from this unity either a good god and evil demon proceeded, or light and darkness before these. Similarly, in our Denkart passage the menok, defined as 'uncompounded' (a-ham-but), 'single' (evtak), 'invisible and intangible', divides into the menok of light and that of darkness, the first being the principle of life and the second of death. Light, life, hot and moist we know to be of the substance of Ohrmazd, and darkness, death, cold and dry are no less of the substance of Ahriman. Both, then, according to this account, proceed from the single, undifferentiated menok which we have encountered elsewhere as the ras, primal matter or Space-Time. The dualism between the two opposing Spirits is there all right, but it is a dualism that proceeds from the primal unity. This is the Zurvanite heresy in philosophical disguise.

The Three Types of Zurvanism

We have seen that three types of Zurvanism were combated in Sassanian times. First there were the Zandiks, Zurvanite materialists who derived all creation from infinite Space-Time, who denied heaven and hell, did not believe in rewards and punishments, and did not admit the existence of the spiritual world. With these we are now familiar. Secondly there were the straight fatalists, and lastly the Zurvanites proper who regarded Infinite Time, in its personification as the god Zurvan, as being the father of the twin Spirits of good and evil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman.

Zurvanite Fatalism

Both the orthodox and the Zurvanite heretics regarded creation as being a limitation of infinite space and infinite time. Primal matter is reduced to an orderly cosmos, and this is the embodiment of limited time and space. Thus the cosmos is a living organism bounded by the heavenly sphere which, being itself limited time-space, controls all that is within it, for it is the soul of the world. All that takes place in the twelve thousand years which is the life-span allotted to this material creation, is, then, controlled by the sphere, and by the twelve constellations and the seven planets that inhabit it. Human destiny, then, must be in the hands of these astral powers. This was the second Zurvanite heresy -astrological fatalism- and it, too, ran directly counter to the Prophet's clear affirmation of the absolute freedom of the human will. Like all things, however, in this state of mixture of good and evil, the luminaries are divided between the good god and his enemy: the constellations or Signs of the Zodiac are on the side of Ohrmazd, whereas the planets are literally the spawn of Satan. Whatever good Ohrmazd transmits to his creatures through the constellations risks being interpreted by the malevolence of the planets and being redistributed unjustly.

'The twelve Signs of the Zodiac... are the twelve commanders on the side of Ohrmazd, and the seven planets are said to be the seven commanders on the side of Ahriman. And the seven planets oppress all creation and deliver it over to death and all manner of evil: for the twelve Signs of the Zodiac and the seven planets rule the fate of the world and direct it'.

Of the Pahlavi books that have come down to us it is the Menok i Khrat that shows the most pronounced fatalist tendencies. The orthodox themselves did not deny that one's earthly condition was ruled by fate; what they did deny was that fate could affect moral action on which man's ultimate salvation or damnation depended; these rested squarely in man's own hands. In places the Menok i Khrat comes perilously near to denying this. Fate not only determines one's earthly lot, but also one's character.

'Though [one be armed] with the valour and strength of wisdom and knowledge, yet it is not possible to strive against fate. For once a thing is fated and comes true, whether for good or the reverse, the wise man goes astray in his work, and the man of wrong knowledge becomes clever at his work; the coward becomes brave, and the brave man becomes cowardly; the energetic man becomes a sluggard, and the sluggard energetic: for, for everything that has been fated, a fit occasion arises which sweeps away all other things. [So too] when fate helps a slothful, wrong-minded, and evil man, his sloth becomes like energy, and his wrong-mindedness like wisdom, and his evil like good: and when fate opposes a wise, decent, and good man, his wisdom is turned to unwisdom and foolishness, his decency to wrong-mindedness; and his knowledge, manliness, and decency appear of no account.'

Such were the views of the Zurvanite fatalists against which the High Priest Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, struggled during the reign of Shapur II; but though he won his battle and saved the doctrine of free will for Zoroastrianism, fatalism, in the long run, triumphed over its rival; for, with the coming of Islam to Iran, it found a ready really ally, and Firdausi himself, who did more than any other man to revive the glories of their Zoroastrian past in the minds of his fellow-countrymen, paints a picture of Zoroastrianism that in no way reflects the spirit of hopeful free enterprise that is characteristic of all phases of that religion; rather he shows us a universe inexorably ruled by an ineluctable fate, subject to the revolving heavens and a pitiless Time in which all man's striving and all his heroism crumble away to dust.

'Classical' Zurvanism

Zurvanism proper, it would appear, did not receive official sanction until the reign of Yazdgird II, although it must have existed as early as the fourth century BC as the testimony of Eudemus shows. It was a heresy which, unlike the Zurvanite materialism we have discussed, originally owed nothing to the foreign accretions introduced by Shapur I. It was genuinely Iranian and Zoroastrian in that it sought to clarify the enigma of the twin Spirits which Zoroaster had left unresolved. If the Holy and Destructive Spirits, or Ohrmazd and Ahriman, as they had now become, were indeed twins, then they must have had a father; and this father, according to the Zurvanites, was Zurvan, the Zurvan Akarana of the Avesta, Infinite Time personified.

The myth of the two primeval twins who are born of Infinite Time is only attested in non-Zoroastrian and Anti-Zoroastrian sources: only the late 'Ulama-yi Islam among the Zoroastrian sources preserves it in a modified form. Among the Pahlavi books Zurvan appears as a god, and not a simply as the principle of Infinite Time, in both Zatsparam and the Menok i Khrat; he is also given a brief notice in the Bundahishn catalogue of deities. In the Denkart he never appears under his own name, but is simply referred to as 'infinite time' (zaman i akanarak).

Abstracted from : The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, 1961

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